Joan Didion: Grief Becomes a Part of You
Author Joan Didion talks about how losing a loved one can make a perfectly rational person feel like she is losing her mind.
BY: Interview by Lisa Schneider
In her bestselling and National Book Award-winning memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," novelist and essayist Joan Didion, 71, writes about the months following the fatal heart attack of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, at their dining room table in 2003. The couple of 40 years was just home from the hospital, where they'd been visiting their only daughter, Quintana, who was extremely ill at the time.
Less than two years later, after Didion had finished the manuscript for "Magical Thinking," her daughter also passed away. She spoke with Beliefnet recently about how grief can feel like insanity, how faith does and does not help her cope with loss, and what her friends did for her that comforted her the most.
Listen to Joan Didion talk about:
- Her Episcopal faith
- A "point in dying"?
- Strength: "You feel as if you have none"
- Grief: "Always a part of you"
- What helped her most
What do you mean by "magical thinking"?
One of the things that happens to people in grief is they secretly think they're crazy, because they realize they are thinking things that don't make sense. For example they are thinking–I don't know how many people have told me this–that their husband or wife will come back. And I don't mean come back in terms of a resurrection; I mean simply walk into the room.
I got a letter from a woman this morning who told me that she couldn't sell her husband's car because she was obsessed with the idea that he would need it when he came back.
I couldn't give away my husband's shoes. I could give away other things, but the shoes–I don't know what it was about the shoes, but a lot of people have mentioned to me that shoes took on more meaning than we generally think they do… their attachment to the ground, I don't know—but that did have a real resonance for me.
Here's another example: I realized at some point that my absolute insistence that there be an autopsy was not in any way based on the idea that I didn't know what had happened. I did know. But in some recess of my mind I had the idea—even though I've watched autopsies and know exactly what happens–I know that once an autopsy is performed even if you weren't dead before, you're dead then. At some secret level I really thought they might discover that what had gone wrong was something so minor that they could fix it on the spot.
I was really using the term "magical thinking" the way anthropologists use it. When they describe a people as thinking magically they mean something along the lines of: If we make these sacrifices the crops will thrive, for example. It's a way that primitive people and not-so-primitive people try to control the world they live in.
Although you felt as if you were crazy, you explain that the magical thinking was a way of feeling like you had some control…
It was reassuring. On one level I suppose it's necessary. On another level I also knew that I was unhinged, that I wasn't thinking straight, which—to somebody who puts a lot of importance on thinking straight—was troubling.
A lot of people have told me since the book came out that they went through this period of thinking they were crazy. Actually both Freud and Melanie Klein described grief as a derangement. But it's the only derangement that each of them noted we don't treat. Because we don't try to treat it because we expect it to resolve itself in time.
Was there some point at which you let go, and got rid of your husband's shoes?
Well here's the thing [laughs]. I haven't actually gotten rid of his shoes. But I don't have to; I mean I don't need to. I tell myself that it's not magical thinking anymore, it's that I haven't had time to do those things.
But you've let go of the idea that you can bring him back?
Do you see the magical thinking as a sort of speed bump or detour, or did it actually help you move on?
Clearly it helped me get through the period, when otherwise I would have not been able to move forward.
So it's not useful to talk about it in terms of denial, of something holding you back…
No, it's different from denial. Somehow it's a different phenomenon.
[Before his death] I'd been in a lot of denial about John's cardiac condition. I kept regarding it as something that had been fixed. One of the things that we learn as we get older is that nothing that has gone wrong with us medically in our lives is never really over, you know? [laughs] I mean the residue of it–it does something to you. In his case very specifically–he'd had open-heart surgery but damage had been done to his heart before the surgery. The surgery did was it was supposed to, but it didn't correct the damage that was already done.
People often talk about grief as this thing that evolves or progresses, as if there's some healing process…
It's so unpredictable though. In my case it was put off because our daughter was sick. And so I just shoved it over and kept myself from thinking about it because I had to focus on her. And then when it came and I sort of started working through it, I thought that it would be over. but it it comes back at odd times.
This week for the first time since my daugher died I had to go to someone else's funeral. And I had been perfectly fine and this was an expected death; it was an older person who had been very ill. But I was undone all day, and that was clearly about Quintana, not about anything else.
You wrote that there was no forward movement to your grief; it's not as if today is better than yesterday and surely tomorrow will be even better.
No, it doesn't seem to work that way.
Do you think your husband's death prepared you at all for Quintana's?
Yes, because it taught me that it would be a while. What happened to me in the year after John died was that I realized that we have very little of the control that we so prize. We can't control events; they are going to happen. In a way it allowed me to let go and not try to control things as obsessively as I had in the past. So in that sense I was better prepared for Quintana's death.